Since 2016, Sarajevo is my second home. The blue side of the city to be exact. A city where the pain from its history goes hand in hand with hope for the future. The people who have suffered so much, but never stopped living. For these people I have the biggest respect. With the minimum they have, the maximum they give you. This is the place of my favorite club besides the one in The Netherlands: FK Željezničar.
Many will say you can only support one club. Maybe within the country borders. But for me, a couple of football clubs have a special place in my heart. Especially FK Željezničar. Right from the start Zeljo grabbed me, especially their supporters. Until that first meeting with FK Željezničar, I had experienced the Balkan hospitality a few times, but in Sarajevo they gave it a sincere extra dimension. Manijaci treated my like one of their own. I lacked nothing. So hours later, together with dozens of fanatics, I hang in the fences with a flare celebrating the a goal against their arch rivals. The moment my heart starts turning blue.
That day I gained amazing friendships for life. Special people who provided me with great memories never to forget, both young and old. Each year I am returning at least once to Sarajevo. Mostly when the Sarajevo Derby is played, you have seen some of them presented earlier. Now time to dig into the club a little bit more.
‘Željezničar’ mean railwayworker. The club was raised on 17th of September 1921 by a group of railway workers. A club with a strong social character. In comparison to a lot of other clubs, Zeljo was poor and gained their income from organizing dance nights. From the revenues they bought football shoes and balls. In that time it was very common clubs represented a certain ethnic group, but at FK Željezničar everybody was welcome.
In the years that followed, the club wasn’t able to find its way to the top. Not only the lack of money was a problem, also their social character caused a lot of resistance in the country. Zeljo got suppressed in various ways. Now and then they managed to defeat the rich clubs. In 1941 Yugoslavia became part of the Second World War. Lots of players had to go to the front line and never came home again.
Start of an intense rivalry
In 1946 FK Željezničar was reborn. The won the championship of one of the seven regional leagues that year. They promoted to the Yugoslavian First League, the highest league. After the WW II three clubs – Đerzelez, SAŠK and Slavija – were dismantled by the authorities and formed into a new club: SD Torpedo. This was the predecessor of FK Sarajevo.
The authorities were convinced this club should be the representative of Sarajevo. The best players of the city needed to play for this club, also the best players of FK Željezničar. A huge problem for The Blues and caused a lot of anger on their side. They will never forget it. The start of a rivalry which grew into one of the fiercest in Europe today.
Zeljo relegates that season, back into the regional leagues. They had to start building again. A quick return in the top flight was wishful thinking. Their rivals managed to gain promotion in 1948. After relegation they immediately returned in 1950. The first official derby was played in 1954, when FK Sarajevo won 6-1. Of course this intensified the rivalry.
Sarajevo Derby in balance
The remarkable fact of the Sarajevo Derby is that the clubs keeps each other in balance. The derby is played 140 times. Zeljo won 45 editions, lost 42 and 53 ended up in a draw. The goal difference is only +7 in favor of The Blues. The small difference is made last season, when Željezničar won both derby’s. At Grbavica they won 5-2 and away it was 1-3. Unfortunately due to Corona, the league was stopped and never finished.
But the greatest disaster came a fews weeks later. Despite the fact the league was not finished and there was still plenty to play for, the FA stopped the league and declared FK Sarajevo the Champions of last season. A disgrace according to the blue side of town as they believe no club should have been declared Champion as long as the league hasn’t been finished.
FK Željezničar throughout the years
The club primarily played in the Yugoslavian First League. A few times they relegated, but returned directly. 1964 became the worst year in history, as the club received a penalty because of match fixing. They weren’t allowed in the highest league together with Hajduk Split. The biggest succes was in 1972 when Zeljo became Champions of Yugoslavia and made it to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.
In the 1984 -1985 season they managed to even reach the semifinals of the UEFA Cup. They played the Hungarian club Videoton. Zeljo lost the first leg away with 3-1, but were in from 2-0 with minutes to play. They were already thinking of the final against Real Madrid, when the Hungarians scored. A dream destroyed.
Start of the civil war
In round 26 of the Yugoslavian league, Željezničar played FK Rad at home. After 35 minutes of play, the match was abandoned. There was gunfire outside the stadium which was the first attack on Sarajevo by Serbian forces. In the following years Sarajevo in under siege. The club can’t finish the league, players flee to other countries to find safety.
Grbavica Stadium, the homebase of FK Željezničar, is right there in the front line. The wooden main stand gets destroyed in a fire on May 7th 1992. While the war isn’t over yet, the club manages to participate in the first Bosnian League in 1994 – 1995. They were in fourth place, but that did not matter. Participating was the most important thing.
On May 2nd 1996 the first Sarajevo Derby in Grbavica is played with 20.000 fans at the stands. The stadium still partly destroyed. This becomes the derby of resurrection. The fact that derby ends in 1-1 is not important. This is the pride of Sarajevo, the pride of Bosnia.
After the war Željezničar becomes one of the most successful clubs in the country. They win six league titles, six domestic cups and three times the Super Cup. Zrinjski from Mostar also has six league titles, but less cup titles. Arch rivals FK Sarajevo follow with five league titles, but the title from last season will always be discussed.
When Tito passed away in 1980, the fight for power started at political level in Yugoslavia. Also the football fanatics started to protest more and more again government interference. Torcida of Hajduk Split finally was able to use their name since 1981, after it was disallowed by the government for decades. Many of the ultras formed their names in the late eighties, a lot of them in 1987 like Manijaci: the ultras of Željezničar.
The group is located on the south stand of Grbavica Stadium, also named the Holy South stand. Since 1987 they grew to one of the best ultras groups in former Yugoslavia and Europe. It is not a surprise that the Sarajevo Derby belongs to the fiercest derby’s of the continent, sometimes called the little brother of the Belgrade Derby when it comes to fanatism and rivalry.
After my first visit
For a long time a visit to the Sarajevo Derby was on my wishlist. On 23rd of July 2016, this clash was the season opening. With over 30 degrees perfect summer weather a road trip to the capital of Bosnia for this derby. It became one never to forget. The hospitality of was just amazing and after leaving the city I knew I would return soon. The derby ended 1-1 and afterwards I spent hours in a bar together with the Manijaci, in particular my “brother from another mother”. We talked about football passion for ages.
Since then I have visited five Sarajevo Derby’s, mostly the away matches actually. Every time a special experience and never gets bored. I also joined the Bosnian supporters on their away match against Belgium a couple of years back. The older guys of Manijaci and Horde Zla (ultras of FK Sarajevo, arch rivals) stood brotherly next to each other. When the pride of Bosnia is at stake, their rivalry is set aside.
The most important thing, they have shown me what football means for them in Bosnia. For a lot of them football is the only they have and love to share their passion with you. The connection with their daily lives, their culture. Both FK Željezničar as Manijaci are loyal to their identity, as they are socially very active. They know how important it is to show perspective for the future. Amazing for me to experience and to be part of it for a little bit. Here in the west, clubs alienate from their supporters because commerce is more important.
My friends in Sarajevo made me member of their club, as a gift to me. FK Željezničar has become my club.
Manijaci goal celebration in 2016 derby – my first visit